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Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 season will be filled with challenges that coaches and players could never have imagined they would have to deal with. But if there was one Shore Conference team that could have been somehow prepared for the disjointed offseason and preseason and the bevy of restrictions in place it is without a doubt the Pinelands Wildcats.

When the current seniors were freshmen Pinelands was on split sessions, which meant they didn’t start practice until 5 p.m. and also could not use the locker room. During their sophomore year, emergency construction at the school closed the building and moved everyone across the street the middle school. The team had no locker room, no weight room and no home field. Their junior year offered a respite as they returned to school with locker room access and got back on their home field, but adversity struck again when the pandemic hit in March.

“Our team is led by a group of seniors who have gotten very comfortable in uncomfortable situations,” said Pinelands head coach Matt Fuller. “Our leaders have never had a normal season or offseason. They have gotten used to the things that many schools are just now trying to figure out. If we can use those experiences to help us focus on just playing the game we will have a successful season.”

Hardened from unique and adverse situations and loaded with returning starters on both sides of the ball, Pinelands will try to end an unforgettable year on a positive note by authoring the program’s first winning season since 2004.

A whopping 10 players who started at one point or another return in the Wildcats’ flexbone offense, which is new for this year. One key loss, however, is junior running back Nunes Bukula Jr., who transferred to Donovan Catholic. The only position that will not feature a returning starter is left guard where senior TJ Maino and junior Chris Caravano are working in. Senior Connor Harris is the quarterback, seniors Shayne Michot and Tyler Nikola are the fullbacks and seniors Dom Darcy and Nathan Jeanotte are the running backs.

Pinelands has nine starters back in its 3-5-3 defense, including four of its five linebackers, all of whom will be three-year starters. Harris leads the way after earning first-team all-National Division honors last season and is joined by his twin brother, Aaron, at outside linebacker. Michot and senior Andrew Jenkins are the inside linebackers and will be joined by either Maino or sophomore Jack O’Brien.

The defensive line has senior Matt Perez as a returning starter at defensive tackle and senior Abdullah Elaysad as a returning starter at defensive end. The entire secondary returns with seniors Dom Darcy and Xavier Jenkins as the cornerbacks and senior Jack Lawrie as the free safety.

“If we can control the ball and limit big plays we can be successful,” Fuller said. “It’s going to come down to how quickly we can adapt to the new offense.”

 

At a Glance

Projected starters (RS=returning starter, 3RS=3rd-year returning starter)

Offense: Flexbone

QB: Connor Harris, Sr., RS

RB: Dom Darcy, Sr., RS; Nathan Jeanotte, Sr., RS

FB: Shayne Michot, Sr., RS; Tyler Nikola, Sr.

TE: Andrew Jenkins, Sr., 3RS

WR: Jack Lawrie, Sr., 3RS; Jacob Haldenwagon, Sr.

LT: Dan McNeimer, Jr., RS

LG: TJ Maino, Sr.; Chris Caravano, Jr.

C: Tommy McNeil, Sr., RS

RG: Andrew Staub, Sr., RS

RT: Matt Perez, Sr., RS

Defense: 3-5-3

DE: Andrew Staub, Sr.

DT: Matt Perez, Sr., RS

DE: Abdullah Elaysad, Sr., RS

OLB: Connor Harris, Sr., 3RS

ILB: Shayne Michot, Sr., 3RS

ILB: Andrew Jenkins, Sr., 3RS

ILB: TJ Maino Sr.; Jack O’Brien, So.

OLB: Aaron Harris, Sr., 3RS

CB: Dom Darcy, Sr., 3RS; Nate Jeanotte, Sr.

CB: Xavier Jenkins, Sr., RS; Nick Daleo, Jr.

FS: Jack Lawrie, Sr., 3RS

 

Head coach: Matt Fuller, 4th season

Career record: 7-21

Team record last five years:

2019: 1-8

2018: 4-5

2017: 2-8

2016: 4-6

2015: 2-8

Assistant coaches: Joe Adelizzi (Defensive Coordinator/LB/FB); Anthony Allocca (DL/OL); Scott Peterka (OL/DL); Mike Keller (QB/OLB); Gennaro Balleta (WR/RB/DB); Justin Loomis (freshmen); Howard Berry (freshmen); John Tierney (middle school head coach); Joseph Yglesias (middle school asst.); Stacy Childs (athletic trainer).

 

Player to Watch: Connor Harris, Sr., QB/LB

Harris will be entering his third year as a starting linebacker and is the leader of the Wildcats’ defense. He’ll also spearhead Pinelands’ flexbone triple-option as the quarterback.

 

Player Under the Radar: Shayne Michot, Sr., FB/LB

This could be any number of players but we’ll go with Michot, who was a second-team all-division lineman last season but will move to fullback in the flexbone offense. He returns as a three-year starter at linebacker after leading Pinelands with 81 tackles last season.

 

Impact Newcomer: TJ Maino, Sr., OL/ILB

There are just a couple spots not filled with returning starters and Maino is in line to fill one on offense at left guard and another on defense at inside linebacker.

 

Top position group: Linebackers

With four three-year returning starters, the second level of Pinelands 3-5-3 defense is the clear strength of the team.

 

Big Shoes to Fill: Andrew Jenkins, Sr., TE

Jenkins is a seasoned varsity player as a three-year starter but is now at tight end where last season Ed Wilkinson was a first-team all-division selection.

 

X-Factor: New offensive scheme

Pinelands has installed a new offense in switching to the triple option. The Wildcats were last in the Shore averaging just 7.1 points per game last season so they obviously have to improve significantly.

 

Season Schedule

Friday, Oct. 2 – vs. Barnegat, 7 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 9 – vs. Lacey, 7 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 16 – at Manchester, 7 p.m.

Saturday, Oct. 24 – at Lakewood, 1 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 30 – vs. Central, 7 p.m.

Nov. 6 – BYE

Nov. 26 - at Southern, 10 a.m.

 

Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at bob.badders@townsquaremedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.